The Truth Is Out There

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”

I promised my friend Brian a response to his post today about “The Foundations of Ethics” so here it is:

There are a couple of assertions Brian seems to make that I’d like to address:

  1. Ethics or ethical behavior are not supported by logic.
  2. Logic is the only or best method of determining the validity or truth of a concept.

For the moment let’s address the second point. As I talked about last week there are several ways human beings understand the truth of the universe, Faith and Science. It is my belief that a full understanding of the universe requires knowledge of both, and that the exclusion of one or the other is illogical. Thus an understanding that is only based on science, or its more elemental basis logic, is only a partial picture of the universe and what is “true”.

To clarify, my definition of truth in this case is something that enlightens or describes a property of the natural world, humans as individuals or society as a whole.

The existence of morals and ethics in our society and our individual nature has a source, or is an inherent property, otherwise it would not exist. Humans are understood to possess ethics and morals. You cannot prove simply by a man’s actions that he has made a decision based on a moral code, and yet we as a society understand that such codes exist, they are true. We may not have a logical basis for their existence, but we nonetheless must acknowledge that existence.

Similarly as part of a society we can decide that certain moral values are inherently good or inherently bad. Murder is felt by society as a whole to be evil, even if an extremist view of survival of the fittest might interpret murder as just another method of freeing up resources for one’s self. That murder is bad may not be able to be logically proved, but it is true nonetheless.

Furthermore, societal morality and ethical behavior is logical insofar as the goal of any society is to provide the most freedom for its individual members, while at the same time assuring that the society as whole is prosperous and growing (Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness). A society in which murder is an acceptable form of behavior would have difficulty in forming trusting relationships and would face population pressure from attrition on the one side, and a lack of union on the other.

But what about individual morality and ethical behavior, which seem to be at the center of Brian’s argument.

One argument for moral behavior is Pascal’s wager. The basics are if God does not exist and I believe I am no worse off than if I had not believed. However, if God does exist than I am either damned or saved based on my belief so I might as well believe. This extends into the code of behavior that is commonly thought to be part of following God. However, I can acknowledge that this wager makes a couple of assumptions, that following God’s moral code does not deprive us of any real benefits from sin (i.e. sin isn’t really all that fun anyway).

In the current system, devoid of any faith based reason, personal morality might be best understood as a form of enlightened self interest. While as an individual I may personally have no qualms about murdering someone, I recognize that the personal consequences outweigh the potential benefits. Even in a case where this is not true, in the “let the world burn” mentality of The Joker, though there would seem to be no basis to logically prove that such behavior is wrong, a fuller understanding of the reactions of society would make such a moral framework incomplete and ill-informed.

And the moral framework of an “evil” personality might have a logical basis as well as an emotional truth basis. As we learn to understand the brain better we can see how chemical imbalances can cause a person to be more inclined toward a certain behavior, be it drink, gambling, or sociopathic behavior. The behavior has a measurable correlation and while it cannot be proved as yet, it can be logically inferred.

But as I said, science and logic are not the only methods of understanding truth. Sociopath’s are described as human beings who lack empathy, the quality that allows us to identify with others. We know that empathy exists to a certain degree in some people, and is completely lacking in others. Again, there seems to be a correlation between a lack of empathy and behavior which is “evil” such as killing people. Indeed, it may be empathy that allows us to think of others both in terms of the common good, as well as how our actions affect individuals. Our whole framework for ethical behavior is rooted in this truth. Yet again, we cannot logically prove that empathy exists, but we understand it to be true as an inherent or given property of our existence.

In summary, ethics are a property of humanity. Following an ethical code is beneficial to society and individuals. There are logical societal reasons for morality, and there are logical individual reasons for morality of individuals in the context of a greater society. Even if there is no logical basis for moral behavior, there are nonetheless properties inherent in us the guide us toward specific moral behavior. Thus while ethics is a truth that may not be able to be logically supported, it is one that is supported by faith and our very nature, and thus it is still true.

Thanks Brian for your argument and look forward to any response you might have!


Filed under Faith + Life

6 responses to “The Truth Is Out There

  1. Chuck Conover

    To quote Lazarus Long,
    “Tilting at windmills hurts you more than the windmills.”
    Or …
    “Sin lies in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other ‘sins’ are invented nonsense. (Hurting yourself is not sinful – just stupid.)”

    Tilt away my friends. Let me know who wins.

    • We’re young, and old friends, so we’ll tilt away as necessary. As for sin an interesting definition from The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis says that it is not important whether a thing is right or wrong, but rather whether it produces a condition that brings a man closer to God or closer to the devil. In other words, a man who commits a grievous sin, but through it becomes aware of his sinful nature and repents, grows closer to God and ultimate salvation.

  2. You make the case that a “good” system of ethics has benefits for society, has a sound logical reason for existing, and is part of our nature. No arguments here. I completely agree that it makes logical sense for ethics to exist, and that they’re good for everyone. Likewise I agree that murder, Mars, and the color maroon all exist, and have perfectly logical reasons for existing. No argument here.

    But even if somehow committing murder had societal benefits and was in line with someone’s nature, I imagine you’d still be against it. You and I believe deeply that murder is wrong, independent of all those other reasons you gave. It’s that foundation I’m getting at. What is it based on? Is there a logical argument to be made in its favor? If you can give one, I’d love to hear it, but I don’t think it exists.

    You also talk about faith, and of course faith is what leads me to (try to) live a moral life. Overwhelming faith is all I have here, in the absence of logic, so it has to be enough. The difference is that you seem to be satisfied with that, whereas I find the “faith” answer deeply unsatisfying.

    The reason is that faith lies. Millions of people around the world have enormous faith in dozens of different religions that are mutually exclusive in fundamental ways. If the core of Christianity is correct (that Jesus died for our sins) then the core of Buddhism must be wrong (that salvation is found through our own practices). I’m sure some will try to argue that Christianity and Buddhism are compatible – though I don’t buy it, personally – but regardless, with so many world religions, they can’t all be right. A very large group of people have been betrayed by their faith.

    And so I look for something more. I’m just not sure it exists.

    • A few quick thoughts:

      1) I’m not sure I can agree with your characterization that faith “lies” or that people are betrayed by their faith. I agree that religions can be mutually exclusive and that all or most claim to be the one true faith. As someone who has faith in Christianity I would not say that a Buddhist’s faith is lying to them, merely that they have placed their faith in something that is untrue. This is a fine distinction but one that is important to make. Faith, in the sense I mean, is a choice to believe a certain thing to be true, even when others say it is false. Such a faith can be incorrect, but it is not lying.

      2) Besides religious reasons for moral and ethical behavior, the larger quality I describe, empathy, is consistent across religions. My faith in empathy as an intrinsic quality of the human race is not based solely on the idea that God gave us that quality, but also on the observation that it is in our nature (almost uniquely so). The reason I quoted our mutual pointy eared friend at the beginning of my post is I believe that some things must be understood to be true even if they cannot be logically proved. Indeed “belief without seeing” is a quality that Christ valued more than “seeing is believing.” (see Thomas at Christ’s Resurrection).

      3) As for faith being the only basis for some truths let me say “faith manages”. I’m not being flippant just because I’m quoting a race with bony heads. Why is faith an “unsatisfying answer” for you (besides just the fact that some faith is misguided)? I ask because I feel that as rational as we human beings like to think we are, we don’t make decisions logically. As far as I know, no man has actually been swayed to Christianity by Pascal’s wager, and if he was he’d be a very weak Christian indeed. Similarly, I feel that logic and science alone as the basis for a lack of confidence in faith is not enough. Even the idea that faiths are mutually exclusive does not give rise to all of them being false. There has to be a deeper or more personal cause for faith being “unsatisfying”. What raised this particular topic in the first place?

  3. 1) You’re right, “incorrect” is a better word than “lying.” Poor choice of words, I guess. But my point stands. Faith can be wrong, which means it can’t be trusted as a guide.

    2) I agree empathy is an intrinsic part of our nature. So is greed. “X is an intrinsic part of our nature” is not a valid argument for X.

    3) “Why is faith an unsatisfying answer for you (besides just the fact that some faith is misguided)?” Faith is an unsatisfying answer for me precisely because some faith is misguided. If faith can be wrong (and we’ve already established that it can), then how do I know if *my* faith is right? All I have left is logic, and since I can’t establish that either, I feel I’m on very shaky ground indeed.

    As for what raised this topic, nothing in particular. It’s something I’ve had in my brain for years. I just happened to get around to writing about it today.

    Thanks for a great discussion!

  4. Chuck Conover

    If we assume that GOD is all knowing, all seeing, etc. (Like he states on the label) – then it is possible for God to contemplate two mutually exclusive ideas at the same time. If this Divine attribute is correct – then it is very possible to allow for more than one path to forgiveness, more than one path to salvation. SO – to continue on this slippery slope – assuming all of the above is true (and including a small measure of indeterminacy) we open the door to the possibility that ALL faiths are true.

    Now, wouldn’t THAT be something??

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